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Fine Time Massachusetts

:
Judges, Poor People, and Debtors’ Prison in the 21st Century

Report of the Massachusetts Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee

The special mission of the Massachusetts Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee is to examine
the performance of the Executive and Judicial branches
and report back to the full Senate.

November 7, 2016

Members of the Massachusetts State Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight
Michael Barrett, Chair
Benjamin Downing, Vice Chair
Ryan Fattman
Jason Lewis
Michael Moore
Bruce Tarr
James Welch

Staff to the Committee
Samuel Anderson
Brendan Berger
Cyntia Howard
Rosie Hunter
Edward Mason

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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements ........................................................................................................................4
Introduction ....................................................................................................................................5
The Story of James K ....................................................................................................................6
Fine Time Massachusetts: The Data ..........................................................................................10
Findings: The Allegations That First Brought People into Court ..............................................11
Findings: The Financial Obligations That Piled Up...................................................................12
Findings: The Hearings That Culminated in Fine Time.............................................................13
Findings: Fine Time Ordered and Fine Time Served .................................................................15
Fine Time Massachusetts: Discussion and Recommendations ................................................16
The Legislature and the Executive .............................................................................................17
The Judiciary ..............................................................................................................................20
Conclusion ....................................................................................................................................25

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Acknowledgments
This investigation would not have succeeded without cooperation and help from those on the
front lines of the Massachusetts criminal justice system. To the individuals named below and the
exceptional people who work for them, the members and staff of the Committee express their
heartfelt thanks. We acknowledge the steadfast commitment of -Ralph Gants, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Paula Carey, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Trial Court
Paul Dawley, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts District Court
Edward Dolan, Commissioner, Massachusetts Office of Probation
Thomas Turco, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Corrections
William Brownsberger, Mass. State Senator (D-Belmont) and Senate Chair, Joint
Committee on the Judiciary
Mary Keefe, Mass. State Representative (D-Worcester)
The Elected County Sheriffs of Massachusetts
Michael Ashe, Sheriff, Hampden County
Michael Bellotti, Sheriff, Norfolk County
Thomas Bowler, Sheriff, Berkshire County
Frank Cousins, Sheriff, Essex County
James Cummings, Sheriff, Barnstable County
Christopher Donelan, Sheriff, Franklin County
Lewis Evangelidis, Sheriff, Worcester County
Robert Garvey, Sheriff, Hampshire County
Thomas Hodgson, Sheriff, Bristol County
Peter Koutoujian, Sheriff, Middlesex County
Michael McCormack, Sheriff, Dukes County
Joseph McDonald Jr., Sheriff, Plymouth County
James Perelman, Sheriff, Nantucket County
Steven Tompkins, Sheriff, Suffolk County
Anthony Benedetti, Chief Counsel, Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services
Cassandra Bensahih, Executive Director, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for
Community Advancement
Leslie Walker, Executive Director, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts

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Introduction
In December 2015, the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight opened an inquiry into a
little-noticed aspect of Massachusetts criminal justice – specifically, into the fines, fees, court
costs, and other assessments imposed on defendants as they move through our courts and
corrections systems. This inquiry is ongoing.
In preparing for an initial public hearing on the subject, Committee members and staff met and
interviewed the individual identified in these pages as James K. At the hearing, held July 28,
2016, James K recounted his story to senators, staff, and others in attendance. The crux of it was
an apparently aggressive effort by a judge to bring in revenue -- or else -- from a defendant who
was obviously and desperately poor, an effort that ended with the judge’s ordering the defendant
-- James K -- to “work off” his obligations by going to jail.
His experience did not seem to be isolated, James told the Committee. Poor offenders he met
during the 36 days he spent incarcerated at the Worcester County Jail referred to his situation by
a popular local nickname: “fine time.”
This report investigates “fine time” in Massachusetts.

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The Story of James K
On April 8, 2015, a twenty-seven-year-old homeless man named James K1 stood before a judge
for all of forty-five seconds in a courtroom in Dudley, Massachusetts. James owed $1,100 in
fines and fees on an old criminal case. He had come almost a thousand miles to square things
up. He succeeded, although not in the way he hoped. He told the judge he was poor, and the
judge responded:
OK. All right, he’s gonna be surrendered on the fines. He’ll be incarcerated,
surrendered on the fines. Thank you, sir. … Thirty dollars a day they’re gonna
give you at the jail, OK?
James was now enmeshed in an obscure arrangement known informally as “fine time.” In
Massachusetts, when a person fails to pay off his monetary obligations in a criminal case, a judge
has the option of sending him to jail to “work off” what he owes at the rate of $30 per day.
James, who did not spend a single day in jail on the criminal charges that first brought him into
the district court, ended up spending 36 days in jail on fine time.
Fine time is the extreme result of a byzantine structure of criminal fines, fees and assessments
upon which the Massachusetts criminal justice system is financially dependent. Though doing so
may entail significant hardship, most people who owe money to a court find a way to pay off the
obligations without languishing in a jail cell. But some, like James, simply cannot come up with
the money. The story that follows is his. Yet, as this investigation found, it is not unique.
A Troubled Past
In 2006, James, just eighteen years old, moved from New York City to the Worcester area.
Lacking an education or job skills, he turned to selling drugs to survive. In February 2007, just
four days after his nineteenth birthday, a Charlton police detective caught him with cocaine. He
was arraigned in Dudley District Court on drug charges and, because he was indigent, was given
a state-supplied lawyer and assessed a $150 indigent counsel fee, which he paid. The following
month, after James failed to show up for a court hearing, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
James, barely an adult but amply in trouble, had moved back to the New York City area. Three
months after missing his court date in Dudley, he was arrested and jailed for a bank robbery in
1

The Committee conducted several interviews with James K and checked his account against records maintained by
the Massachusetts courts. He has asked that his last name not appear in this report.
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Queens. He spent the next four years in federal custody, first for the bank robbery and then for
an unrelated assault on a correctional officer.
Looking for a Fresh Start
While serving his federal time out of state, James decided to give up crime as a way of life. He
took criminal justice courses through LaGuardia Community College and wrote to Dudley
District Court to find out how to address the drug charges stemming from his Charlton arrest. He
concluded he could progress no further while he was locked up.
Following his release from federal prison in November 2011, James appeared in Dudley District
Court in June 2012 on the drug charges. Two months later, with the help of another statesupplied lawyer, for which he paid a second $150 indigent counsel fee, he pleaded guilty to a
single count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The judge declined to sentence
him to jail; he fined him $800, then added on a $200 “surfine” and a $50 “victim/witness” fee,
though James’ particular offense involved no victim and no witness.
As an ex-offender with no job skills, James struggled to earn a living. He moved several times,
eventually ending up in Kentucky.
In February 2013, after James failed to pay his $800 fine, his $200 surfine, and his $50
victim/witness fee, the Dudley court issued a warrant for his arrest and in connection with it
tacked on a “default warrant” fee -- another $50. The new arrest warrant was a problem; James
could not get his Massachusetts driver’s license, and thus a better job, unless he took care of it
and a second, older warrant in Worcester. Still in Kentucky, he decided to return to
Massachusetts to clear up everything and move on with his life.
Fine Time
In early April 2015, James boarded a bus in Kentucky and made his way to Worcester via New
York City and Boston. He paid $200 -- nearly all the money in his pocket -- to resolve the old
Worcester case, then spent the night in a homeless shelter. The next morning, he caught a bus to
Webster and walked the last 2 ½ miles to Dudley District Court. To a clerk he explained that he
wanted to work out his unpaid fines and fees, now totaling $1,100. After a brief visit to the
Probation Department, he went to Courtroom 1 and waited to be heard by the judge.
When the judge called the case, James explained he was poor. The judge cut him off, telling him
he would be sent to the Worcester jail, where he would work off his debt at $30 a day. James
wasn’t asked whether he wished to have a lawyer or why he could not pay the $1,100 on the
spot. Had the judge asked the latter question, he would have learned that James had no job, had
just spent his last $200 paying off fines and fees in another case, had slept in a homeless shelter
the previous night, and was willing to agree to a payment plan or do community service.

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As James describes those forty-five seconds in front of the judge:
To play devil’s advocate for the Judge and to present the case against the Judge as
well, it was an old docket. … So it’s like, I’m tired. Just go to jail and pay your
fine that way. … His temperament was a little bad because he just dealt with a
drug addict and he threw them in jail. So I come right before the drug addict and
he’s like everybody is going to jail. That’s what it seemed like as well, he was
just like fed up. … He asked me if I had any money, I said no, he said you are
going to jail. Thirty dollars a day, that’s how it happened.
James was immediately taken into custody and sent to the Worcester County jail. He was
released on May 14, 2015, after being confined to a cell twenty-three hours a day for thirty-six
days. During his imprisonment, James learned from other inmates he was not the first person to
be locked up for failing to pay money owed to the court:
They have a saying for the type of time I did and it’s called “fine time.” … You
don’t have money, you’re doing fine time. So people are very familiar with that.
… Almost everybody in jail owes the state money. So that’s just the fact.
Contrast: Different Court, Different Result
James’s experience in Dudley was not the end of his troubles, but his later difficulties were
leavened by small acts of kindness on the part of others. After his release from the Worcester
jail, he used the few dollars he had to get to Boston, where he spent a week at the Pine Street Inn.
From the Inn he walked 25 miles to Framingham. Finding the local shelters full at the end of a
long day, he settled down to sleep on the steps of a parking garage connected to an apartment
complex. He was found there by two Framingham police officers, who arrested him and charged
him with trespassing -- “a euphemism,” James says, “for homelessness.” An assistant district
attorney agreed to a “continuance without a finding” -- continuation of the proceeding and,
provided James stayed out of trouble, eventual dismissal of the charge -- so long as he paid
another $50 victim/witness fee.
James made his way back to Worcester, where he was accepted into the Salvation Army’s Adult
Rehabilitative Center (ARC). ARC gave him a job and a small stipend, but it was not enough to
enable James to pay the victim/witness fee levied by the Framingham court. When he failed to
do so, yet another warrant was issued for his arrest. James explains what happened next:
[M]y counselor at the Salvation Army, they grant me a day’s grace out of work,
so I go to court in Framingham. I believe I see a magistrate there, I don’t go back
before the judge that presided over the case originally. … So I explain what’s
going on in my life now … and she exercised discretion and she settled the debt
with the amount I had at the moment.
James was able to clear up his trespass case for all the money he had in his pocket: $31.
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James returned to Worcester, completed the ARC program, and now rents a room in a Christianrun house in the city. He reports that he has stayed out of trouble. In possession of a valid
driver’s license, he is working and saving money, and hopes to attend truck-driving school.

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Fine Time Massachusetts: The Data
As he moves through the Massachusetts courts, a criminal defendant runs a gauntlet of financial
risk. He’ll incur a fee for court-appointed counsel (even if he’s indigent), a fine (if he’s guilty of
the underlying crime), a victim/witness assessment (even if the crime is victimless), a monthly
supervision fee (if he’s put on probation), a daily monitoring fee (if he has to wear a GPS
device), court costs (because courts are expensive to run), a default fee (if he defaults on a court
date), and so on.
If the defendant claims a lack of funds with which to meet these obligations, many judges will
find an equitable way to proceed -- waiving some of the debt, extending the time for payment,
ordering community service instead, and the like. But, as James K discovered, another option is
to send the defendant to jail, where he or she pares down the debt by $30 for each day served2 -Massachusetts’ version of debtors’ prison in the 21st Century.
Incarceration for failure to pay fines, fees or court costs is familiar enough to local offenders to
have its own gloomy nickname: “fine time.” A defendant ordered to do fine time goes free only
if he works off the entire amount sitting in jail or someone pays the outstanding balance.
The Committee began this examination of fine time with a number of questions. What are the
original allegations that bring James K and others before the judge? What financial obligations
do they pick up along the way? What happens at hearings that end in a judge’s order of
incarceration? Once offenders are sent to jail, how long do they stay there?
Investigating, the Committee requested copies of Mittimuses for Unpaid Monies -- documents,
issued by a judge to the elected sheriff in charge of a given county house of correction, stating
the named defendant has “failed to pay court-ordered monies in this case in the unpaid amount
shown above.”3 Each Mittimus (Latin; literally “we send”) orders the defendant “committed to
the above institution in lieu of having paid such amount” and directs any authorized official “to
convey and deliver the defendant safely to such institution,” where he is to be kept “until such
unpaid amount is paid as ordered, or the defendant is fully credited with such amount at the rate
of $30 per day … or is otherwise legally discharged.”

2

M.G.L. c. 127, §144.
Mittimuses for Unpaid Monies can be addressed as well to the Commissioner of the Mass. Department of
Corrections, but in the course of its work the Committee determined that almost all such documents are issued to
county sheriffs and almost all fine time is served in county jails rather than in state prison. Women are the
exception; female defendants served their fine time at MCI Framingham, the state prison for women.
3

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Committee staff asked each sheriff’s office to send us copies of all Mittimuses for Unpaid
Monies received from judges during 2015. Ten of the state’s 14 elected sheriffs generated
effective responses.4 Officials in three counties -- Essex, Plymouth, and Worcester -- were able
to satisfy us that they had supplied all cases for which mittimuses were issued to them in 2015.
The comprehensive three-county case total came to 105. Targeting this sample for intensive
review, Committee staff examined each Mittimus to identify the court that had ordered the fine
time. Staff then visited the relevant courthouse to review the hard-copy case file, including the
docket sheet -- a document detailing information such as the criminal charges against the
defendant and their disposition; arraignments, hearings and other major events; and the
appointment, if any, of publicly-funded counsel.
As a check on the accuracy of the written record, the Committee requested, listened to and in
some cases transcribed audio recordings of 72 of the 105 proceedings. These audios proved to
be invaluable complements to the hard-copy files.
Findings: The Allegations That First Brought People into Court
Of the 105 cases that culminated in fine time, what offenses were alleged at the outset of the
criminal proceedings, and what came of these allegations?
Initial Charges. Most of the precipitating events were relatively minor.5 In 42 of 105 cases
(40% of the sample), the defendant had been charged with automobile-related violations
unrelated to operating under the influence -- driving on a suspended license, driving an uninsured
or unregistered motor vehicle, negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and so on. In 17 cases
(16%), the trigger was public order offenses -- disorderly conduct, public drinking, or
trespassing. Nine cases (9%) involved shoplifting. Just 17 cases were more serious; 12 of these
were assault-related and five involved operating a vehicle under the influence. The remaining 20
cases, in the middle of the spectrum, involved property crimes and minor drug possession.
Outcomes. None of the 105 cases went to trial on the original alleged offenses. In 62 of the 105
(59% of the total sample), all charges were either dismissed, “continued without a finding,”
disposed of with pretrial probation, or treated as civil infractions. In another 42 instances
(40%),6 the result was a guilty finding on at least one charge, yet only four of these individuals -and thus four individuals out of the total sample of 105 -- ended up serving jail time for an
4

Four sheriffs maintained they could not identify relevant documents among their stores of otherwise unrelated
mittimuses, most of which direct them to take people into custody for reasons unrelated to an unpaid criminal fine,
fee or court cost assessment.
5
The district courts have criminal jurisdiction over all misdemeanors, all violations of city and town ordinances and
bylaws, felonies punishable by a sentence up to five years, and some specified felonies that carry greater potential
penalties. G.L. c. 218, §26. Superior courts have criminal jurisdiction over more serious felonies. The Committee
found no 2015 instances in which a superior court imposed fine time.
6
In one case of the 105, no disposition on the underlying offense had been reached at the time the Committee
completed this analysis.
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offense that brought them into court in the first place. In sharp contrast, all 105 served time for
failure to pay fines or fees.
Findings: The Financial Obligations That Piled Up
Sources of Debt. In only 36 of 105 cases (34% of the sample) had the defendant been ordered to
pay a fine as actual criminal punishment for an underlying offense; in another five cases (5%),
the defendant had been ordered to pay restitution. Whereas in 99 out of 105 cases the defendant
owed fees, court costs and other miscellaneous assessments.7 The most frequent of these:

Counsel fees. In 53 of 105 cases (50% of the sample), the defendant had, at an earlier point
in the proceedings against him, been found indigent, been assigned counsel, and incurred a
$150 fee to offset the expense of the lawyer.8

Court costs. In 31 of 105 cases (30% of the sample), the defendant had been assessed court
costs, ranging from $50 to $500, on charges that themselves were dismissed or continued
without a finding.

Probation fees. In 20 cases (19% of the sample), the defendant had been ordered to pay
either $65 or $50 as a monthly supervision fee for the duration of his probation.

Victim/witness assessments. In 39 cases (37% of the sample), the defendant had been
ordered to pay a victim/witness assessment of either $50 or $90.

Default-related fees. In 73 cases (70% of the sample), the defendant had been assessed fees
for default warrants, default warrant removals or default warrant arrests. These are said to
represent reimbursement to the trial court system for the expense of issuing and removing
warrants for failure to appear in court ($50) or to the municipality for the expense of making
an arrest on default warrants ($75). Such levies can add up; the defendant in one case we
investigated had amassed $550 in default-related fees alone.

As a consequence primarily of these exactions plus a random few others, defendants owed the
court amounts ranging from $30 to $3,384. In 38 of 105 cases (36% of the sample), defendants
owed more than $500. In 12 cases (11%), the amount exceeded $1,000. The distribution of total
financial charges per defendant breaks down as follows:

7

The other six cases involved a fine or restitution only.
When a defendant qualifies for court-appointed counsel, the judge has the option of waiving the $150. This
happened in only seven instances; in three others, the defendant qualified for court-appointed counsel but declined
the offer, avoiding the fee.
8

12

$1-$100

10

$101-$250

27

$251-$500

30

$501-$750

16

$751-$1,000

10

$1,001-$1,500

9

$1,501-$2,000

2

Over $2,000

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Findings: The Hearings That Culminated in Fine Time
In evaluating the hearings that ended in a judge’s order of fine time, the Committee asked four
questions. Did the judge inquire into inability to pay? Did he offer the defendant an alternative
to incarceration? Had he or an earlier judge cautioned the defendant that he might go to jail for
failure to pay these debts? Did the defendant have a lawyer or, alternatively, did he waive his
right to counsel?
In its intensive review of the three-county sample, the Committee found -

Inquiries into inability to pay. The audios of the actual hearings suggest the judge
conducted something of an inquiry into inability to pay in only six instances out of 105 (6%
of the sample).9 This, despite recurring suggestions in the record of difficult finances: in ten
cases, the defendant was described as unemployed; in five cases, as homeless. In 63 of 105
cases (60% of the sample), the defendant, on another day and at an earlier point in the
proceeding, had been found indigent for the purposes of receiving court-appointed counsel.10

Offers of alternatives to incarceration. Hard copy and audio records show that many
defendants -- perhaps a majority -- had received prior extensions of time to pay their debts.
But in only 17 of 105 cases (16% of the sample) do the records indicate that the judge, on

9

The Committee actually found only four such instances among the 72 cases for which we were able to obtain the
audio as well as the hard-copy record. We extrapolated from the tally of four instances out of 72 to arrive at an
estimated six instances out of 105.
10
In seven of these 63 cases, the judge waived the $150 fee for indigent counsel. In three other cases, the defendant
avoided the fee for other reasons. See footnote 8.
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another day and an earlier point in the proceeding, had exercised his statutory power to waive
or reduce the defendant’s debts. In only 32 instances (31% of the sample) is there an
indication that a judge, prior to ordering the defendant’s incarceration, had at some time
offered a less restrictive option such as community service.

Assistance of counsel. Audios of the proceedings indicate the presence of an attorney or at
least the offer of one in only 48 cases out of 105 (46% of the sample).11

Advance notice of the risk of incarceration. The Committee’s review of the written and
audio records gave rise, unexpectedly, to a fresh question about fundamental fairness -specifically, about notice and due process. Neither the written nor the audio records confirm
whether Massachusetts defendants in fine time situations had been warned by a judge, on an
earlier occasion, that failure to pay might land them behind bars. But in at least a dozen
instances – see the example below from Newburyport District Court -- the audio of the
proceeding captures the defendant’s disbelief and bafflement as he’s led away on the spot to
jail.

Tales from the audio records. As mentioned, the Committee supplemented its review of the
hard-copy case files by obtaining and listening to the audio recordings of 72 of the 105
hearings. In addition to providing crucial information about judges’ inquiries into inability to
pay and offers of legal counsel, they reveal the real-life flavor of fine time proceedings:
 In Newburyport District Court, a defendant, charged originally with three offenses that
were dismissed, was ordered to serve 25 days in jail for failing to pay $760. The
defendant, who was not represented by counsel, asked, “Do I have any say on this?
Like, any defense?” The judge replied, “Pay the money. … We got to clean up the
paperwork.”
 In Leominster District Court, in April of 2015, a defendant previously convicted of
shoplifting was sent to jail for owing the court $175. The judge asked, “Do you have
the money sir? … We’ve been waiting two years for it, right?” The defendant said,
“I’ll have it on the first, your honor.” The judge said, “You don’t have to worry about
it anymore, you’re committed on the fine.” Given the audio record, it appears the
defendant had no attorney representing him.
 In Dudley District Court, a defendant for whom public counsel had just been
appointed on an unrelated case was given fine time for failure to pay $769 in
accumulated obligations. “Do you have the money?” the judge asked. The defendant
said he would “have a check next week.” The judge responded, “Committed on the
fine. You can work it off at $30 a day.” His court-appointed attorney, there for the

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The Committee actually found only 33 such instances among the 72 cases for which we were able to obtain the
audio as well as the hard-copy record. We extrapolated from the tally of 33 cases out of 72 to arrive at an estimated
48 instances out of 105.
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new charges, said nothing during the portion of the proceeding devoted to the debt and
imposition of fine time.
 In Worcester District Court, a defendant was overdue on a $50 obligation. “Do you
have any money, sir?” the judge asked. “I have no money. I get paid tomorrow,” the
defendant said. “Why does this always happen to me?’’ the judge replied. “I don’t
have a current job so I get cash benefits --” the defendant began. “Why does it have to
be tomorrow? Why not today?” the judge said. Pointing out the defendant had
performed only four community service hours of twelve assigned, he continued, “So
this is a $50 fine. You got 50 bucks?” The defendant said, “I have nothing on me til
tomorrow.” The judge replied, “I’m gonna put you in jail, OK? Because I’ve had
enough.” The defendant responded, “I apologize, sir.” The judge said, “You don’t
have to apologize. My feelings aren’t hurt. The only thing is, it seems foolish that I
would incarcerate you for $50. … You’re here today, in front of me today. The
tomorrow stuff doesn’t work for me.” After a brief concluding exchange, the
defendant was led away. From the audio, it appears no defense attorney was present.
Findings: Fine Time Ordered and Fine Time Served
Here, the Committee inquired into two matters -- the duration of the confinements ordered and
the duration of time actually served.
Judges’ Formal Commitments. By statute,12 the judge may require the defendant to serve one
day of fine time for every $30 owed the court. Across the 105 cases of fine time we examined,
the briefest period of confinement ordered was one day and the longest was 112 days. In 48 of
105 cases (46%), the defendant was ordered to serve at least two weeks.
Time Spent Incarcerated. For the purposes of measuring duration of fine time actually served,
we removed from the sample 30 instances in which people did their fine time concurrently with
longer sentences they were serving; in these instances, the duration of incarceration attributable
to fine time alone was unknowable. This left a usable sample of 72 cases.13 In 60 of these 72
instances (83% of the sample), the defendant served three quarters or more of the jail time
ordered. In 49 cases (68% of the total), the defendant served all of the jail time ordered. In only
six cases (8% of the total) were the defendant’s obligations paid off within one day of
incarceration.

12
13

M.G.L. c. 127, §144.
In three instances the Committee was unable to determine the length of actual incarceration time.
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Fine Time Massachusetts: Discussion and Recommendations
As we’ve reported, the Committee obtained extensive data on fine time in three populous
counties -- Essex, Plymouth and Worcester.
The composite picture that emerges from the numbers is jarring. Most of the individuals who
ended up incarcerated for failure to pay monetary obligations had come into court on relatively
minor charges; 68 of the 105 cases in our sample involved motor vehicle violations, public order
complaints, shoplifting, and the like. In contrast, only 12 cases were assault-related. Only four
individuals out of 105 served time for the criminal offense that had brought him before the judge
in the first place.
Nevertheless, all 105 people went to jail. In five instances, a precipitating factor was failure to
pay restitution owed to a victim; in 36 instances, it was failure to pay a fine imposed for a crime.
But almost every case -- 99 out of 105 -- had, as a precipitating factor, unpaid fees or unpaid
court costs.
At the hearings that produced these results, defendants were largely on their own. In 54% of the
proceedings, neither the audio nor the written record indicates the presence of an attorney or the
offer of one.
Only six judges undertook an inquiry into whether failure to pay was a function not of willful
contempt but of inability to pay. Inability was a possibility of which almost all the judges would
have been aware; of the 105 defendants in our sample, 60% had been found indigent for the
purposes of receiving court-appointed counsel in the earlier criminal proceeding that gave rise to
the fines, fees and court costs. Indigency findings are recorded on the official written record -the docket sheet -- for all to see, judges included.
Amid the state’s disorderly welter of fines, fees, court costs and other assessments, several stood
out as drivers of incarceration. While only 36 people had received fines as punishment for their
original crimes, 73 incurred fees related to failure to appear in court (default warrants, default
warrant removals or default warrant arrests); 53 incurred “indigent counsel” fees (as “copayments” to partially reimburse the government for funding court-appointed lawyers); and 39

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incurred “victim/witness” assessments (the proceeds of which go to neither victims nor witnesses
but into the state’s general coffers).14
Defendants about to go to jail for failure to pay money have a strong incentive to come up with
what they owe; if they’re already there, they have a strong incentive to produce the amount that
will get them out. Yet most of the people in our sample stayed put. Median period of
incarceration was nine days; 83% of defendants served three quarters or more of the original
sentence before reaching a point at which they could afford to “buy out” the time remaining at a
cost of $30 a day.
--------------Decision-making by Massachusetts district court judges is inconsistent enough to produce its
own uneven justice. Yet responsibility rests, first and foremost, with elected officials. On the
question of fines and fees, legislators and governors have put judges in a bind. Over the years
we’ve raised “prices” on the “services” we charge to users of the criminal justice system. When
these users are late in paying up, we direct judges to collect the money. By passing laws
defining civil and criminal contempt of court, we set up the threat of jail, and the reality of jail,
as special tools in the judge’s debt collection toolbox. But then we hedge, instructing him or her
to waive the debt if the customer is poor. Unfortunately, at the district court level many people
the judge sees are poor. Yet the system is expensive to run and the government depends on the
revenue. While the defendant might receive an extension or two on the deadline for payment, in
the end most judges seem intent on getting in the money.
While the problem starts with pressure from the Legislative and Executive branches, the
Judiciary hasn’t managed to make things much better. Our investigation finds that district court
hearings on whether to incarcerate for failure to pay fines, fees and court costs are flawed by a
lack of consistency, lack of rigor, and lack of compassion.
Backed, ideally, by leaders of the Executive branch, the Legislature should …
1) … oppose increases in those exactions that have big negative effects on poor defendants.
If the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the
same time,15 we politicians are distinguished by our first-rate intelligence. Support for rolling
back criminal penalties in general can co-exist with support for raising any number of penalties
in particular. In other words, we’re not always consistent. Following a high-profile crime,
elected officials are besieged by calls for longer sentences, stiffer fines and higher fees. We
14

It may well be that our 105 “pure” cases of fine time incarcerations are but the tip of a larger iceberg, albeit one
that is difficult to investigate. The Committee expects that failures to pay fines, fees and court costs are important
contributing factors in numerous instances in which offenders are found in violation of their conditions of probation
and are incarcerated.
15
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936).
17

recognize that one extreme case is a poor basis for enacting a law that will apply for years to a
multitude of less extreme cases, and yet the pressures of the moment can be hard to resist.
Members of the Committee respectfully observe that resistance may be what the times require.
2) … double the per diem credit for fine time served to $60. Massachusetts law says “[a]
prisoner confined in a prison or place of confinement for non-payment of a fine or a fine and
expenses shall be given a credit of thirty dollars on such fine or fine and expenses for each day
during which he shall be so confined….”16 The per diem credit hasn’t changed since 1987, when
the Legislature bumped it up from $3 to the current $30. This Committee urges our colleagues to
increase it further to $60. Provided that judicial behavior doesn’t change, doubling the per diem
should reduce the duration of fine time commitments by half.
3) … commit to a phase-out of excessive fines and fees, and to limits on court cost charges.
Viewed from 50,000 feet, the problem with the Legislature’s willy-nilly imposition over the
years of monetary exactions is that when they’re imposed on poor people -- which is very often - they constitute a hugely regressive tax, not only on offenders but on their families. The
obvious two-pronged solution is to scale down the financial impositions, gradually but
persistently, and -- here’s the hard part -- to come up with alternative sources of funding for
courts and corrections. We appreciate that this will take time. The Committee urges our
colleagues to begin the process.
4) … monitor for unanticipated consequences: don’t let fines rise as population declines.
Ideally, the reforms proposed here, combined with sentencing reforms outside the scope of this
inquiry, will bring down not only the number of people incarcerated but the number involved at
every stage of the criminal justice process. In the event of such down-sizing, criminal justice
professionals, consciously or not, may try to offset reductions in the overall volume of offenders
by increasing per-offender revenue. The Legislature should help out in two ways: first, by
setting court appropriations at levels sufficient to smooth out otherwise bumpy transitions, and,
second, by using the Post Audit and Oversight function to monitor for the emergence of any
counter-productive trends.
5) … mandate the offer of an attorney, free of any indigent counsel fee, in fine time cases.
In only 46% of our sample of 105 fine time cases did a defendant have what appeared to be the
conventional assistance of an attorney. Even assuming that some number of additional
defendants waived counsel while some others received a few minutes of advocacy from a duty
lawyer who happened to be in the courthouse, it appears that Massachusetts trial court judges
follow no consistent policy with respect to offering defendants legal representation in the face of
possible fine time.

16

M.G.L. c. 127, §144.
18

The Committee is disappointed to note that a new 2016 Sentencing Bench Book, compiled for
judges of the Massachusetts District Court and the Boston Municipal Court, is altogether silent
on the advisability of offering a defendant counsel in such situations.17
Such reticence is puzzling in light of the teachings of Commonwealth v. Gomes, in which the
Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Mr. Gomes had the right to be represented by counsel at a
hearing before he could be incarcerated for missing his deadline for paying a fine. 18 Gomes
quotes approvingly from Argersinger v. Hamlin, a prominent U.S. Supreme Court decision on
the right to counsel: “Absent a knowing and intelligent waiver, no person may be imprisoned for
any offense, whether classified as petty, misdemeanor, or felony, unless he was represented by
counsel at his trial.”19
Gomes’ situation was different than Argersinger’s -- instead of a trial without a lawyer Gomes
was subject to a post-disposition proceeding without a lawyer, and rather than commission of a
misdemeanor his offense was failure to pay a fine by a date set by the court -- but these
differences did not stop the SJC from invoking Argersinger to support a finding that Gomes had
a constitutional right to counsel. As guidance to district court judges on whether to offer a
defendant the services of an attorney in a hearing on failure to pay a fee or court costs, Gomes is
similarly imperfect -- it involved a failure to pay a fine -- but the SJC’s reasoning in the case
suggests that this too is a distinction without a difference.20
Ideally, a federal or state appellate court will resolve the various uncertainties surrounding the
right to counsel in situations involving monetary exactions. But such a court needs an
appropriate case to review. This could be a long time coming. The hearing in which a trial
judge metes out fine time may last no more than a minute or two, during which the defendant
may well be without legal counsel (thus raising the constitutional issue). No separate date is set
for sentencing and no stays are issued pending appeal. The defendant goes directly from
courtroom to jail, still without a lawyer to resist the loss of liberty before it’s all lost. Fastmoving situations like these are sources of frustration to the legal profession, in that a
constitutional violation may arise that is capable of repetition even as it evades review.
Members of the Legislature operate under no such constraints. We may have constituents who
should be formally evaluated for indigency before coming before the court on financial
obligations and who, if found indigent, should be offered counsel. If we’re concerned about this,
we can address the situation through legislation.

17

Boston Municipal Court and District Court Sentencing Bench Book (March 2016).
407 Mass. 206 (1990).
19
407 U.S. 25 (1972) at 37.
20
The authors of the Bench Book could have taken inspiration as well from Mass. Criminal Procedure Rule 8:
Assignment of Counsel, especially the Reporter’s Note: “The present state of the law is that counsel is required in all
cases where the defendant faces possible imprisonment unless the defendant properly waives his right to the
assistance of counsel.”
18

19

One option is to amend and update Mass. General Laws c. 127, §145, an oddly-worded statute
with the straightforward title “Discharge of poor persons from jail.” Section 145 reads, “Justices
of district courts shall discharge from jail persons confined for the nonpayment of fine [sic], or
of fine and expenses, if they are of opinion [sic] that such persons are not able to pay the same or
that it is otherwise expedient….”
Two great flaws in §145’s current wording are that it affords no relief until someone is already
imprisoned, and, given the relative brevity of most fine and fee incarcerations, a defendant might
find himself without a lawyer to draft a petition for relief. A revamped §145 could require a
judge to (a) conduct a new indigency assessment of any defendant appearing before him who
faces the risk of confinement for failure to pay a financial obligation stemming from a criminal
proceeding; (b) offer the defendant both counsel and an appropriate period of time for the
defendant and attorney to consult; and (c) waive the indigent counsel fee in situations involving
possible incarceration for failure to pay monetary exactions.
The Judiciary, for its part, should …
6) … clarify how trial court judges should proceed before ordering fine time. In October
2014, in perhaps the most constructive recent policy step taken by a high-ranking Massachusetts
official on criminal justice reform, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) directed
“every trial court department with criminal jurisdiction to convene a working group comprised of
judges, probation officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to recommend protocols in their
department that will incorporate best practices to ensure individualized, evidence-based
sentences.”21
The committee most responsible for thinking about fine time cases, the working group for the
Massachusetts District Court and Boston Municipal Court, interpreted this call to action
narrowly, equating the incorporation of best practices with a straightforward restatement of
current requirements, an unfortunate choice if a topic needs constructive rethinking. In March
2016 the working group framed a short set of Best Practice Principles. Only one relates to
monetary exactions. It states the obvious: “The judge should impose all statutorily mandated
assessments, but may waive such assessments, consistent with statutory authority. Consistent
with the prevailing law, a judge may impose community service as an alternative to statutorily
mandated assessments.”22

21

Ralph D. Gants, Chief Justice of the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court, Annual Address: State of the Judiciary,
October 14, 2014. Transcript at http://www.mass.gov/courts/docs/sjc/docs/speeches/sjc-chief-justice-gants-state-ofjudiciary-speech-2014.pdf.
22
Boston Municipal Court and District Court Sentencing Best Practice Principles, March 2016.
20

True enough, but the topic needs more attention than this. From everything the Committee has
uncovered, it appears trial court judges should -6 (a) … inquire into inability to pay. In the 67-page Boston Municipal Court and District
Court Sentencing Bench Book, referenced above, the working group attempted more specificity,
for our purposes with mixed success. “Fees, Fines, and Court Costs,” a two-page section, opens
with a welcome exhortation to judges to inquire into a defendant’s inability to pay versus willful
disregard of an obligation -- but only with respect to fines.23
Here, as elsewhere in the Sentencing Bench Book, the authors deploy language with what seems
to be painstaking specificity. The two pages refer pointedly to fines (typically understood to
mean monetary exactions imposed, like incarceration itself, as punishment for a crime) but
seldom to fees (exactions to defray the cost of an ongoing service or activity) and never to court
costs (exactions to cover the expense of prosecuting the defendant in particular).
Thus, with respect to inability to pay fees or court costs, the two-page section (and the rest of the
Bench Book) is silent, as to constitutional requirements or recommended best practices. There is
a limited exception in a paragraph on waivers, but here, inexplicably, the material covers only
waivers of probation fees, and only to the extent of reciting the black-letter law laid down by the
Legislature. The authors have nothing to say about the circumstances under which judges should
consider granting waivers or other aspects of the process.24
Still, at least probation fees get a mention. With regard to waivers of the indigent counsel fee,
the victim/witness fee, court costs, and the OUI program surcharge -- each of which accounts for
$1 million or more in annual exactions upon defendants -- the Bench Book’s coverage is so slight
as to be undetectable. The same goes for the many remaining statutory assessments.25 If a busy
judge were to look to the Book for a sense of how to think about inability to pay in connection
with fees or court costs, he or she would come away with almost nothing.
The void is particularly disheartening given the availability of Commonwealth v. Gomes and
Commonwealth v. Henry. In Gomes the SJC considered the appeal of an assessment of $50 in
court costs to cover the apparent expense of the court’s entering a default against the defendant.
The Court ruled for the defendant; court costs could have been assessed only after the conduct of

23

Boston Municipal Court and District Court Sentencing Bench Book (March 2016), at 22. In a separate section on
restitution, the Sentencing Bench Book does not reiterate instructions to evaluate the defendant’s ability to pay and
the availability of less restrictive alternatives to incarceration. Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), the U.S.
Supreme Court’s most authoritative analysis of incarcerations and inability to pay court assessments, deals
specifically with an instance of restitution, so the Bench Book’s omission is unfortunate.
24
Sentencing Bench Book (March 2016) at 17, 22-24. The Bench Book does refer to “Potential Money Assessments
in Criminal Cases,” a separate document that does an excellent job of detailing each fine and fee, including whether
a waiver is an option authorized by law, but, other than citing inclusive language in Bearden and Gomes, makes no
recommendations on when judges should collect, when they should waive, and when they should incarcerate.
25
Sentencing Bench Book at 23.
21

a hearing into whether “the defendant’s default was willful”26 rather than a function of inability
to pay, something the district court judge had failed to do.
In Commonwealth v. Henry, decided just this year, the Court applied similar reasoning. There a
criminal trial court judge ordered Ms. Henry to pay a dollar amount in restitution that was
arrived at without taking into consideration her impoverished financial situation. Imposing a
dollar amount she couldn’t pay exposed Ms. Henry to a number of potential consequences,
including incarceration. The Court found, “Burdening a defendant with these risks by imposing
restitution that the defendant will be unable to pay violates the fundamental principle (italics
ours) that a defendant should not face additional punishment solely because of his or her
poverty.”27 The Court elaborated, “The payment of restitution, like any court-imposed fee
(italics ours), should not cause a defendant substantial hardship.”28
Support for more consistent inquiries into ability to pay is surfacing elsewhere. With respect to
the indigent counsel fee, the SJC offers new Rule 3:10, in particular the portion that reads, “The
indigent counsel fee shall be waived where a judge, after the indigency verification process,
determines that the party is unable without substantial financial hardship to pay the indigent
counsel fee within 180 days.”29 As far as the Committee can tell, the current Bench Book, issued
in March, 2016, has yet to be updated to take account of Henry and revised rule 3:10.
Even after revisions are made, what will remain an open question is the Book’s practical effect
on the behavior of district court judges. Distressingly, many of the 105 orders of incarceration in
our sample issued despite clear intimations of difficult finances: in ten instances, court records
describe the defendant as unemployed; in five instances, as homeless. In 63 instances (60% of
the sample), the defendant, on another day and at an earlier point in the proceeding, had been
found indigent for the purposes of receiving court-appointed counsel.
Still more doubt about the fairness of inquiries into financial status stems from the fact that, of
the 72 cases for which duration data is available, 60 defendants, or 83%, served three-quarters or
more of fine time ordered. This suggests genuine inability to pay; it’s safe to assume that few
people would choose to serve out their entire sentences if they had a realistic alternative. Only
five defendants, or 7%, managed to purge fine time orders within a day of entering jail, and in
most of these situations the money owed was minimal.
6 (b) … offer alternatives to incarceration. While our analysis shows judges often gave
defendants multiple extensions of time to pay, in only 47% of the cases is there evidence that,
prior to ordering imprisonment, the judge either waived a portion of the debt or offered
community service or another alternative to incarceration. It seems the majority of defendants

26

407 Mass. 206 (1990) at 209.
Commonwealth v. Henry, 475 Mass. 117 (2016) at 122.
28
Ibid, at 127.
29
S.J.C. Rule 3:10, Assignment of Counsel at §10 (a).
27

22

were up against a bottom-line culture; they could get themselves breathing space on a debt, but
in the end the judge wanted the money.
As for prospects for changes in district court culture, there is reason to be discouraged. The
“Fees, Fines, and Court Costs” section of the recently issued Bench Book directs judges to
inquire into alternatives to incarceration -- but with respect to fines only, to the total exclusion of
fees and court costs.30
Such minimalist attention to the advisability of considering alternatives compares unfavorably to
the strong note sounded by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. In
March of this year the Division urged, more as a matter of recommended best practice than of
strict legal analysis, “Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants
unable to pay fines and fees.”31 Specifically, “In some cases, it will be immediately apparent
that a person is not and will not likely become able to pay …. Therefore, courts should consider
providing alternatives to indigent defendants not only after a failure to pay, but also in lieu of
imposing financial obligations in the first place.”32
Boiled down, the Division’s message is be flexible, and be willing to tailor. In the Division’s
view, “alternatives to incarceration” should mean more than community service. For people
with demanding work schedules, demanding family responsibilities, mental or physical
challenges, or transportation limitations, community service may not even be the best option.
Since recidivism reduction and successful re-entry are the real priorities, it may be better to try a
restorative justice program or a course in traffic safety or intimate partner violence reduction.
6 (c) … ensure counsel in hearings that may result in incarceration for failure to pay. As
we’ve remarked, the behavior of Massachusetts jurists on assistance of counsel is marked by
pronounced inconsistencies; in only 48 proceedings out of the 105 in our sample did the
defendant have the protection of a lawyer. Until and unless the Legislature mandates the offer of
an attorney in fine time situations, preferably free of any indigent counsel fee (see
recommendation #5, above), the Committee hopes the Judiciary will declare strongly that
representation by counsel is a recommended best practice.
6 (d) … ensure advance notice of the risk of imprisonment for failure to pay. With respect to
the situations that concern us here, neither Sentencing Best Practice Principles nor the
Sentencing Bench Book say anything about notice – about whether a judge, before ordering
incarceration for failure to satisfy a monetary obligation growing out of a criminal proceeding,
should determine that the defendant had notice, sufficiently in advance, that his failure to pay
could land him in jail. The Committee hopes the Judiciary can remedy the lack of guidance on
this point.
30

Boston Municipal Court and District Court Sentencing Bench Book (March 2016) at 23.
U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Dear Colleague letter, March 14, 2016, at 2.
32
Ibid at 4.
31

23

-------------On the division of responsibility for moving forward with reform
It is to be hoped that a state or federal appellate court, acting in either a jurisprudential or
administrative capacity, will set effective new policy on the questions enumerated here. But the
Committee reiterates the concern we expressed above, to the effect that, with respect to monetary
exactions, courts might have trouble acting.
With respect to the available jurisprudence, the mere handful of appellate decisions to date deal
with either fines or fees or court costs but never all three -- or with restitution, or with bail, or
with defaults for failure to appear in court. While the holdings are sometimes tantalizing, in the
end they don’t apply clearly beyond the specific monetary exaction involved in the case. Nor do
the holdings inform trial court judges or lawmakers or anyone else whether defendants have a
general right to any of the four protections discussed here: inquiries into inability to pay, offers
of alternatives to incarceration, offers of the assistance of counsel, and provision of advance
notice of court proceedings that quite likely could result in incarceration.
There remains, in the opinion of the Committee, an unfilled need for a well-organized guide that
Massachusetts trial court judges can consult as they deal with monetary exactions imposed on
criminal defendants.
Perhaps the courts will act in their administrative capacities. Or perhaps the Legislature should
step in.
New legislative language could require that a judge, before ordering a criminal defendant to be
incarcerated for failure to pay fines, fees, court costs or other assessments, make findings, in
writing,33 that (a) the court inquired into, and made an intelligible record of conclusions
regarding, the defendant’s possible inability to pay versus his possible willful neglect of the debt;
(b) the defendant had had previous opportunities to satisfy his or her obligations, through
community service or other less restrictive alternative to incarceration, and had failed to do so;
(c) the defendant either had the meaningful assistance of a court-appointed attorney at the
hearing that resulted in incarceration or had waived representation (see recommendation #5,
above); and (d) a judge had, on a prior date, given the defendant notice – had informed him that
continued failure to satisfy his financial obligation to the court could result in his incarceration.34

33

See, for example, Ohio Rules of Court Procedure 2947.14, Hearing on ability to pay fine: “… the determination
shall be supported by findings of fact set forth in a judgment entry that indicates the offender’s income, assets, and
debts, as presented by the offender, and the offender’s ability to pay.”
34
For a brief but useful discussion of these ideas and others, see U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division,
Dear Colleague letter, March 14, 2016.
24

CONCLUSION
Fine time is alive and well in Massachusetts district courts, a function of unawareness at the top,
unchallenged and sometimes arbitrary power at the bottom, and pressure for revenue throughout.
A one-time call for change will not alter the status quo. Needed is a larger plan that begins with
high-profile communication, continues with discussion and training, and encompasses talk about
finances with the Governor, the State Auditor, the Speaker of the House, the President of the
Senate, and the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means.
Imprisoning poor people for their inability to pay fines, fees and court costs -- essentially, for not
having money -- is the logical consequence of the Legislature’s designating the ground-level
criminal courts as sources of serious revenue for the state. This is all about legislative levies on
relatively low-level offenses, imposed regardless of personal income and increased when general
tax collections threaten to be inadequate. The challenge now, as we retrench, is to adjust for the
falloff in government income. This will likely require a multi-year phased-in effort by the
Executive and Legislative branches, an exercise that should begin promptly.
After finances, a second major challenge awaits. If and when the courts de-emphasize
incarceration as the ultimate response to a defendant’s continuing failure, for whatever reason, to
pay, they will require other options. At the outset, judges and probation officers will need access
to quicker and more accurate information on the personal finances of a given defendant. Later,
in any confrontations over a lack of payment, they will have to give closer attention to payment
plans, waivers, course attendance, treatment programs, electronic monitoring, restorative justice
experiments, and altogether new approaches that await inventing.
The current situation is fundamentally unfair. Justice requires reversing course. Let the process
begin now.

25